“The leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States is car accidents. Teenagers are involved in three times as many fatal crashes as all other drivers.”
Wear a seat belt. Wear a seat belt. Wear a seat belt. It is echoed again and again by schools, parents, public service announcements and new laws. It is often ignored or forgotten or considered redundant by teenage drivers. The simple act of putting on a seat belt does not just save your life. It saves the lives of the people you love.
The following three stories are personal and tragic reminders that go beyond the teenage driving statistics and into the lives of families who have lost someone in a car accident.
Bonnie, Randal and Stephen Arends
The day that Stephen and his twin brother Greg got into a car accident started out like any other day. It was yearbook picture day. Greg and Stephen wore their Future Farmers of America jackets as they ate breakfast. They left for school. Moments later the car was “wrapped around a pole” by the side of the road.
“We thought our lives were changing because you were seniors and the empty nest syndrome might happen,” Bonnie says to Stephen who sits with his legs up on the MobileBooth seat. “Looking at that car not knowing if either of you would survive. It was devastating. The doctor that delivered you and Greg was the same doctor that came up to us and said that Greg was gone.”
Randal remembers the differences between Greg and Stephen. “I remember Greg liked loud rock music and you liked your country music. Greg liked fast import cars and you liked”
“Big Chevy trucks,” Steve says, finishing Randal’s sentence.
“You guys both had such a track record of taking risks,” Bonnie says.
Stephen lights up with memories of rebellion, teaming up with Greg in the pursuit of mischief. “We took huge waterguns – supersoakers – and filled them up with gasoline and made beautiful fountains of fire,” Stephen says.
Going from a 6-month coma to only being able to move a finger to now being able to speak, walk and raise beef cattle, 23 year-old Stephen has come a long way. Although his speech is still slow, he speaks with a confidence.
“As parents, when it came to driving, we were scared in the normal way parents of teenagers are scared. But we thought, you’re farm boys. You’ve been driving since you were young. You surely will be good drivers,” Bonnie says.
“We were invincible or so we thought,” adds Stephen.
Stephen spreads the message of good driving in front of huge audiences. He sometimes speaks at his old high school. “I wanted – my whole life – to help others. And now I’m doing that through such tragedy.”
Penny Gold and Danny Bent
Penny Gold’s son Jeremy Gold Amor was killed in a car accident in 2004 when he was 18 years-old. Penny sits across from Danny Bent, Jeremy’s best friend since he was 4 years old.
Danny remembers the moment when he and Jeremy met. “He asked, Do you want to play?’ and we bolted off leaving you in the dust to go back to your house, because you guys had a playground and we didn’t,” He tells Penny. “It was perfection from there.”
“Our imaginations were so big,” Danny says remembering the basketball games he used to play with Jeremy. “We’d never play against each other, so we always played against imaginary people.”
Danny also remembers a more recent memory of a trip with Jeremy’s family to North Carolina. Jeremy pulled a rope out of the ocean triumphantly, thinking it was a squid. “He was fearless,” Danny says.
“If I was there, he would have worn his seat belt,” Danny says to Penny.
“So he did usually wear his seat belt?” Penny said. “He always wore one when he was with me, but I wasn’t sure if he wore one when he was with other people.”
“What do you miss most about him?” Penny asks.
“Every single thing,” Danny says. “I even miss fighting with him.”
“What did you and Jeremy teach each other?” I ask.
“He taught me how to be a good friend, regardless. Now I cherish every friend,” Danny says. “One thing I taught him is it’s not unmanly to show emotion towards a friend. I told him I loved him. I hugged him.”
Penny remembers a hug she had with Jeremy 4 days before his death. “Ever since he was little, I would hold his hand going across the street. But man, as soon as he was old enough to not have to hold my hand, he didn’t want to hold my hand anymore. A couple days before he died, I said “Jeremy, come and give me a hug. And he gave me a hug. I’m so grateful for that.”
The friendship between Penny and Danny has grown since Jeremy and Danny’s first childhood moment at the family playground. Danny introduces Penny as his “best friend” now. They share a bond as distinct as family. “It’s kind of like having another child, but not with the conflict, the angst or the worry,” Penny says.
Penny and Danny also keep Jeremy alive through their conversation. “We share memories all the time – the good, the bad, the wonderful, the funny, the ugly. It’s nice to have somebody else you can say anything to. It’s nice to have someone in my life that wants to talk about Jeremy too.”
Marianne Epstein and Elisabeth Epstein
Marianne Epstein and her daughter Elisabeth Epstein remember Jamie, Elisabeth’s sister and Marianne’s daughter who died in a car accident in her Freshman year of college.
The conversation between mother and daughter is a nostalgic chronology of Jamie’s life – her talents, her quirks and her kindness. “Jamie would only wear dresses until she was in the 2nd grade. You would only wear sweatpants,” Marianne says to Elisabeth.
Elisabeth laughs about Jamie’s nickname in softball. “They called her Wheels’ because she was so slow.”
“You were always striving to outdo her,” says Marianne.
“I didn’t strive. I did.” Elisabeth says. They both laugh.
“One time, Jamie insisted on swimming across the lake at Tomahawk. I wouldn’t let her do it unless her father went with her in the rowboat. She still insisted and her father and the neighbor took the rowboat alongside her the entire way,” Marianne remembers.
Elisabeth and Marianne tell Jamie’s story all the way up to her Freshman year of college. This was the year that Jamie went to visit her Uncle Dave in New Jersey with a few of her friends.
“The girl who was driving reached for something and lost control of the car and it just spun around and flipped into the median. People don’t realize the physics when a car starts somersaulting. Jamie got thrown from the car and died instantly. The two girls in the front seat had their seat belts on and they walked away from it. That was it,” Marianne says.
“Can you remember where you were when you heard about the accident?” I ask.
“Elisabeth was at dinner, before a school dance. I was at the computer sorting out photographs that I had taken on my digital camera. The doorbell rang and there were two state police officers at the door,” Marianne says.
“You’ve got two choices when something like this happens to you. One is to stop living yourself. The other is to put one foot in front of the other and to take it sometimes minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, but your life has to go on,” Marianne says.
Since the accident, the Epstein family has started a scholarship fund in Jamie’s name. “It’s amazing the amount of people who still donate on a yearly basis to the fund,” Marianne says. “It’s also amazing the number of people who told me that they didn’t wear seat belts before Jamie’s accident, but since Jamie’s accident they always put their seat belt on and they always think of her when they do it.”